Marrying Damian | William Trevor #Begorrathon23

“I’m going to marry Damian.” Joanna said.

Claire wasn’t paying attention. She smiled and nodded, intent on unravelling a ball of garden twine that had become tangled. I said:

“Well, that’s nice, or course. But Damian’s married already.”

It didn’t matter, Joanna said, and repeated her resolve. Joanne was five at the time.

It is still early days of course, but I had hoped/planned to read many more William Trevor stories during March for Reading Ireland Month than I currently have (one)!

The plan was to read his earlier stories in particular that were set in Ireland. I’m sure I can read a few more betweeen now and April, but I have been sidetracked by another incredible short-story writer – Katherine Mansfield.

I accidentally picked up the latest biography about her by Clare Harman, All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything, and quickly caught Mansfield-fever again. Harman has centred her bio-telling around ten of Mansfield’s short stories, relating how each story figures in her oeuvre and her life. Before I start each chapter I have to read or reread the short story in question. It has been a wonderful dive deep into her life and her stories.

Every single time though, I wish that someone had done the same for William Trevor.

Maybe someone is, and I just have to be patient! What a wonderful resource and reading delight that would be – to have that intense focus on a number of his stories to see how they relate to his life and his writing development. The hard part would be to pick which ones of course. Given he lived to a healthy old age (unlike Katherine who died in 1923 aged 34), his bio could easily support a twenty short-story deep dive. Just saying.

Anyhoo, back to William Trevor and Marrying Damian.

By 1994 (when he wrote this story), Trevor and his family were living in Shobrooke, Devon. He was 66 years old and had been a published writer since 1958. Although he lived in England for most of his adult life, he considered himself ‘Irish in every vein‘**. His parents were from farming families, but became bank clerks. As I know all too well, this meant moving around quite a bit. During his childhood, Trevor lived in a number of County Cork villages including Mitchelstown, Skibbereen, Enniscorthy, Tipperary and attended thirteen schools. His parents marriage was not a happy one by all accounts, which goes a long way to explaining the way he writes about marriage.

Trevor’s stories are often described as following the Chekhovian pattern. I’ve only read a couple of Chekhov stories to date, so I looked a little further to find out what this might mean.

A Chekhovian short story or play points to — but refuses to open — the cupboard where the skeleton is concealed; rather, secrets are slowly revealed. 

The Culture Trip

In a May 10, 1886, letter to his brother Alexander, also a writer, Chekhov noted six principles of a good story.

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion
One Wild Word

In Marrying Damian we are presented with Joanna’s declaration that one day she will marry her parent’s friend, Damian. As the story rolls out, we hear about Damian and the three disasterous marriages he has made, his inconsistencies, infidelities and absences. A visit at the end of his third marriage happens to coincide with a visit from the daughter, now all grown up. Are the fears of Joanna’s parents warranted or imaginary?

Damian’s visits are rare and usually unannounced. ‘Invariably he brought with him details of a personal disaster which had left him with the need to borrow a little money.‘ He is not the kind of man any parent would want their daughter to be involved with. Yet as a childhood friend that has led a very different life, he provides a slightly exotic, worldly, dissolute presence during his unexpected visits.

A couple of days into this visit, they suddenly realise that ‘everything was different‘. Joanna and Damian were suddenly very aware of each other; he was being charming and she was being charmed, ‘while Claire and I were numbed into silence.

Trevor carefully reveals that Joanna’s career is in prisons. She has returned to her home town to work in the local prison which has not been brought up to contemporary operational standards. We are told that her area of expertise is ‘rehabilitation‘ and that she loves the challenge this new job presents. Ahem – enter Damian. Exactly the type of man that a woman who was a ‘retriever of lost causes, a daily champion of down-and-outs, had ever wanted.

But what really happens?

That’s where Trevor leaves us guessing. After the parents share a long dark teatime of the soul kind of night, imagining what will happen next, and how it will play out – Damain is not the kind to walk away an adventure, and their daughter is someone who believes that she could succeed where the other women had failed – they find themselves next morning simply chatting ‘inconsequentially‘ with Damian over breakfast as Joanna goes off to work.

At least five of Chekhov’s recommended points are there – brevity, compassion, objectivity and truthfulness, combined with a lack of overt socio-political-economic comment (although it is there, subtly, nostalgically, in the talk of old homes discarded, going to wrack & ruin, and being pulled down).

Another William Trevor gem.


Favourite Quote:

  • There is a bittersweet comment on marriage that caught my eye. Instead of blaming each other as he and Claire once might have, looking to shed guilt, ‘we didn’t because ours are the dog days of marriage and there aren’t enough left to waste: dangerous ground has long ago been charted and it’s avoided now.’

** William Trevor: the keen-eyed chronicler | The Guardian | Tim Adams | 2 Aug 2009

Title: Marrying Damian 
Author: William Trevor
Published: 9th November 1994 in The New Yorker, then later in the short story collection After Rain (1996).
Date Read: 25th February 2023
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

15 thoughts on “Marrying Damian | William Trevor #Begorrathon23

  1. Oh you temptress, you!
    I have already read a superb bio of Katherine Mansfield, so I thought I could pass on this new one, but now? Well, of course, I have to have it.


  2. Will look this one up in my two-volume short story set; it sounds a treat.

    BTW, didn’t know he had lived in Skibbereen… I went there on a holiday circa 2009! I also know Enniscorthy, which is in County Wexford (my MIL lives nearby and it’s where Colm Toibin is from), not County Cork.


  3. The advantage Milly finds in us being no longer married is that every now and then to keep me on my toes she will take our conversation onto that dangerous ground (and generally leave me there, stranded).
    My daughters have had so many unsuitable marriages and relationships that an unsuitable older man would hardly be noticed (luckily I don’t have any friends they might find tempting).
    The story made me think of the old family friend the beautiful Polly marries in one of Nancy Mitford’s books.


    1. At some point every woman believes she can tame/rehabilitate/save some man from himself. She is usually wrong, but it’s exciting for a while! I found that the unsuitable relationships help you work out all the things you DON’T want; hopefully, eventually the trick is to focus on the things you DO want instead.

      You’ve reminded me that I really must read the Nancy Mitford books on my TBR shelf one day!


  4. The quote in the beginning really makes me want to read this book. I have not read anything by William Trevor, and it seems it is about time I do.


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